The Downham Benevolent Society, also known as the Downham Friendly Society or Downham Sick Club was formed in the 18th century and is an early example of an ‘insurance’ society. Such Friendly Societies were the product of the organised working classes, generally those linked to trades or skills, and were formed in accordance with an Act of Parliament passed “for the encouragement of relief”. Their purpose was to provide benefits in the event of sickness or accident and to assist with funeral costs for members and their families. 

The Downham Benevolent Society paints a picture of a relatively prosperous community at its outset in approximately 1785. The textile trade was by then a successful and growing one. The earliest records so far discovered are the Downham Benevolent Society’s Rule Book which is dated 5th March and later in the book 9th March, 1795. However, we know that the Society commemorated its centenary in 1885 so have to assume that it had already been going for at least ten years at the time of the initial compilation of the Rule Book.

The Society was administered at the outset by Jonathan Boothman, a weaver. It met on the first Sunday of each month at the pub in Downham – then called The George and Dragon, now The Assheton Arms. Each member of the Society put one shilling (12 old pence) in the box – 10 pence for the Society and tuppence towards a sum which was distributed each Whit Monday “in a manner the majority of members determined” at their annual celebrations. In the early years of the Society weavers and those linked to the textile trade outnumbered all other members. A few husbandmen joined but it was at least twenty years before farmers and husbandmen began to join in significant numbers and not until 1825 that a labourer was admitted to membership.  

The rules were strict. Men could only join between the ages of 16 and 28 but, once they did, they were members for life so long as they paid their subscriptions. Some occupations were excluded – stone-getter, miner, painter, gilder ‘or the like’, soldier, seaman or seafaring person. Such occupations were considered “unwholesome or dangerous”. Members were expected “to lead a sober life and conversation and be of sound constitution, and not to have venereal disease or bring disorder by fighting or rendering themselves unfit for work”. In return for obeying the rules, members could expect substantial relief for their families if the breadwinner was incapacitated. 

The Lancashire Archive has a photograph of the Society’s celebrations of its first centenary in 1885. In commemoration of the Centenary, the Society had a large banner made – The Downham Banner – which was paraded around the village on each anniversary. The photograph shows the Society seated outside the pub with the Banner proudly on display. The Downham Gazette of 1889 mentions the “Old Sick Club celebrations” and there is a photograph of the “Sick Club celebrations” taken in the 1900s. 

In 1908 the Society celebrated its 128th anniversary (implying its foundation had in fact been 1880) with “the usual round of festivities”. These included a Church service, a procession headed by the Banner and a Band, a meal for members at The George and Dragon with tea at the School for the children. With everyone replete, the procession re-formed and proceeded to Downham Hall where there was dancing for the adults and races for the children. 

No one is exactly sure what happened to the Society in the 20th Century. The last recorded entry in the subscription book is dated 1901. It is known that it was finally wound up in 1913 with permission of the County Court and an entry in the London Gazette. As part of the Downham Banner project, further historical research into The Society is being undertaken both by Local Historians and by students from the University of Central Lancashire. Their new findings will be published in due course.

From an article © Elizabeth Wrigley, July 2008

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Downham Benevolent Society Annual Parade
Possibly the centenary 1885
Lancashire Archive Office DDX 28/341

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